In many ways, AriensCo is a product of the Wisconsin ecosystem. The company made its name manufacturing snowblowers, a natural extension of the state’s snowy climate. The addition of mowers and other equipment strengthened the focus on making tools that are designed to nurture outdoor spaces. When you consider that the average Ariens or Gravely customer also makes a living outside, it is clear that AriensCo and nature are inextricably linked.
It’s in this spirit that AriensCo is announcing a major conservation project on the grounds of its headquarters in Brillion, Wisconsin. The company has committed to restoring and conserving 150 acres of land, as well as cultivating and managing the wide variety of native animal species that will call it home. Approximately 86 acres of this will be prairie oak savanna, a unique habitat that once thrived in the U.S. Midwest but is currently in peril. It is estimated that only 0.01 percent of the state’s original 5.5 million acres of prairie oak savanna are left. The remaining 64 acres of the project will be comprised of forest and wetlands.
AriensCo is working with ecologists on a variety of strategies to revive the land, cultivating the native vegetation and wildlife that once called the area home. The prairie oak savanna lines the recreational trails the company has been creating over the last few decades on the property that connect to Stone Prairie, an event site AriensCo debuted in last year. It’s all part of the company’s plan to create a sanctuary for plants, animals, employees, visitors and Brillion residents alike.
“The history of Brillion and the history of AriensCo are interconnected,” said AriensCo Chairman and CEO Dan Ariens. “For five generations, the Ariens family has invested in this great city that supports us. By restoring and preserving this natural habitat, future generations will be able to enjoy the many benefits of connecting with the natural ecosystem of Wisconsin.”
AriensCo sought guidance from Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) in 2017 to begin the ambitious prairie oak savanna project. WHC runs a Conservation Certification program that independently verifies environmental programs managed by a variety of companies around the world. This program is the only voluntary sustainability standard that is designed for broad-based biodiversity enhancement and conservation education activities on corporate landholdings. Currently, WHC helps facilitate conservation programs in 47 U.S states and 28 countries.
“The mission of WHC resonated with our mission within the green industry,” Ariens said. “In fact, I heard WHC President Margaret O’Gorman speak at an event on the topic of corporate conservation and how companies can leverage their own lands to not only mitigate climate and wildlife challenges but also provide places for employees and visitors to improve mental health and overall facilitate a better sense of well-being in a community.”
The WHC certification program has several distinct roles. It identifies meaningful wildlife habitat management and conservation education programs for companies. It provides third-party credibility, evaluation, and metrics and standards reporting so that the public can fully trust in corporate environmental efforts. And it helps companies demonstrate a long-term commitment to managing quality habitat for wildlife, educating people on the tenets of conservation and reaching out to local communities to participate.
AriensCo works with Stuart Boerst, a senior ecologist with McMahon Associates, to ensure the restoration efforts meet WHC’s strict standards. The company has already established 26 acres of the prairie oak savanna and 24 acres of forest and wetland, and in the coming years, AriensCo aims to establish an additional 60 acres of prairie oak savanna and 40 acres of woodland, including 2.5 acres of both shallow and deep marshes. In total, the company has committed to 150 acres of land conservation.
“A lot of work has gone into this project," Boerst said. “We are still working on the final plans, but so far, the project has been a success. It’s wonderful being part of the amazing team at AriensCo and creating a nature preserve for all the employees and community to enjoy.”AriensCo is proud to report that it earned the WHC Conservation Certification® for the prairie oak savanna in 2020. The certification is the first step in managing the restoration project and it marks the beginning of a continual effort to oversee the land. In what WHC calls “adaptive management,” AriensCo will embark on long-term strategies to evaluate success, revise objectives, consider modifications to maximize its efforts and ultimately, recertify the project. It’s a continual process to ensure that both the lands and the people that will enjoy them are maintained.
"The WHC Conservation Certification program at the Brillion campus is a model of corporate conservation on a manufacturing site,” said Margaret O'Gorman, WHC President. "Recognizing the importance of greenspace for employees, AriensCo has created a thriving habitat to support wildlife, recreation and agriculture that meets the stringent requirements for WHC Certification.”
In a prairie oak savanna habitat, oak trees are the dominant feature, and they thrive in an otherwise lightly forested grassland. There were once some 50 million acres of oak savanna in the Midwest, but today they are rare, and only about 30,000 acres remain. The project at AriensCo will replant the oak trees and surrounding grassland, and it will foster the animal life that has already begun to call it home.
The restored savanna consists of a mixture of prairie and trees that provide a plethora of plant and animal diversity. The trees include white oak and bur oak, which will cover up to 50% of the area when viewed from above. This enables enough sunlight for grass and wildflowers to grow among them in various sections of prairie types, including short wildflower prairie, medium wildflower prairie, tallgrass prairie, savanna prairie and wet prairie. Eventually, the land will be home to more than 140 species of wildflowers, grasses, sedges, rushes and legumes.
The process for establishing a prairie oak savanna entails discing the land, herbiciding the non-native vegetation for two years, seeding the prairie with grasses and wildflowers and then the planting of oak trees by landscape specialists. These trees are 1-inch in diameter and 8 feet tall, which is above the deer browse height of 6 feet. Flexible tubing is placed around the trees to prevent whitetail deer bucks from rubbing their antlers on them. Although the prairie component of the project requires only about five years to establish, the tree component is much longer at 50-100 years.
Cultivating an environment for native species to return is another one of the project's primary goals.The wide variety of plant life will attract vast array of wildlife. The first to return include native insects and pollinators, and this in turn attracts native birds, such as the red-headed woodpecker, bluebird and orchard oriole, among others. Smaller mammals, such as rodents soon follow, and these attract predators that include birds of prey and foxes. Many of these species have already begun re-establishing on the grounds. AriensCo employees have spotted foxes, turtles and birds moving in, which has made for some great photo opportunities and conversation starters around the lunch tables.
“The high biodiversity of prairie oak savanna is what makes it so special, but it is also what makes restoring this environment challenging,” Boerst said. “Introducing a wide variety of different trees, plants and grasses requires careful planning. You must time the planting of each species right to ensure they have a good chance of survival.”
Establishing this restored savanna is only the half of it. The area must also be maintained and managed. One of the unique attributes of the ecosystem is its dependence on fire. Fires help regenerate the prairie oak savanna by controlling the balance between trees and prairie. It burns off layers of fallen leaves and other dead plants and converts them to ashes that provide nutrients to the oak trees — in turn, the oak trees and other plant species can drop their seeds into cleared prairie lands to promulgate. The more oak trees there are, the more wildlife can return, and the process continues in symbiotic harmony.
Fire also helps reduce the number of invasive species, either by killing them or restricting their growth. The raised soil temperature, for example, reduces the conditions favorable for the growth of non-native cool-season invasive species, improving the habitat for beneficial wildlife species.
To reap the benefits, these fires need to be professionally started and managed by a specialist team in what is known as a “controlled burn.” These burns will take place at least every three years. From an economic point of view, controlled burns are the most cost-effective management tool however, sometimes there is not enough “fuel” on the ground or burning is not appropriate. In this instance the area is mowed. AriensCo mowed the area this fall, for example. Both techniques help remove invasive species and maintain a sustainable high-quality prairie, as well the high-quality aesthetics of the landscape for the public to view.
The AriensCo conservation project is mainly about restoring and preserving an ecosystem of plants and animals, but people that visit the grounds will surely benefit, too. By creating a healthy habitat, the prairie oak savanna, forest and wetlands can reduce air pollution, protect vital resources, contribute to people’s rest and positive mental health, and increase a sense of community for the people of Brillion and those that visit.
Studies from the University of Michigan and Chiba University, Japan, for example, have shown that employees who spend breaks outside are happier, more creative and experience improved immune health.
AriensCo employees have already begun to take more breaks outside along the grounds and some are making the trip a daily ritual. They are stopping along the way to snap photos, admire wildlife and enjoy a sense of stillness amid their busy workdays.
The project could also present a point of pride for AriensCo employees, as they can contribute to the project and their community. Many of them are already volunteering on the project, helping monitor nesting boxes for birds and taking part in beekeeping, for example. Creating a culture of philanthropy provides employees with a deeper sense of engagement and adds more value to daily work. This culminates in a stronger, more supportive and more appealing work environment.
Visitors to AriensCo will also be able to enjoy the prairie oak savanna. Last summer, the company unveiled a ten-acre event site, “Stone Prairie,” on the property between the company’s two manufacturing plants. The unique site provides access to the conservation area through a network of trails. It features an event space that people can rent for important occasions. Stone Prairie and the prairie oak savanna provide an opportunity to commune with the native Wisconsin ecosystem for all those that make Brillion a destination in the future.
“The biggest motivation for AriensCo for this project is the future and health of our community and employees,” Dan Ariens said. “We have our roots here in Brillion. We want to protect this land, the people and the wildlife that call it home, not just for the present, but for generations to come. We are committed to this project’s success and excited by all of the benefits it will bring to plants, animals and people alike.”